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the editor's spin

Welcome to Hard Times

Stephen F. Nathans

April 2000 | Six years ago, I attended a reading by E.L. Doctorow, my first and foremost literary hero, and it's probably testimony to the godlike sway in which his work holds me that the experience still annoys me today. During the Q&A;, a woman in the audience asked him, "Books like Ragtime are always so rich in historical detail; how much time do you spend researching a period or topic before you write?" He laughed dismissively and replied something like this: "Very little, actually. When you surround yourself in your work, you don't have to find that sort of material--it finds you."

Don't get me wrong. I don't expect my idols to suffer for their art, but they should at least admit they worked for it. I met Doctorow again yesterday when he came to town to read from his latest, City of God. Before reading the book, I thought maybe I'd take him to task for that long-ago remark. But it seems from the book that he's done it himself.

Loosely constructed as the notebook of a fictional writer--who emerges as a minor character--City of God isn't the seamless interweaving of fact and imagination that Ragtime was. The writer is constantly trying out ideas, researching and writing his way down different paths that don't always lead somewhere. The narrative is nonlinear and disjointed, and so exposed it seems less a Doctorow novel than a blueprint for one.

So on the one hand, it seems he's shucked off the arrogance behind that "it finds you" remark, and revealed the struggle behind his craft. But the biggest theme in the book, as it involves a priest leaving his church, is the insufficiency of existing religious institutions to accommodate faith that's complicated--but not necessarily repudiated--by reason. He's also got something to say about the insufficiency of traditional novel-writing to capture our superhighway-connected world, and indeed, the book not only mixes notes, conversation, snatches of fiction, and riffs on cosmology and the digitizing of movies, but even includes an email or two. At yesterday's reading, he explained it like this: "Today, our thought is terribly contingent, as if it were a patchwork of Web sites. We no longer think in a linear way. We take pleasure in discontinuity."

Doctorow has never been the most traditional of novelists, but he's definitely adapted his style to acknowledge new ways of communicating. And the book seems to implore institutions to do likewise, or at least consider the possibility. As they resist the rising tide of reason, Doctorow seems to ask them, as I once imagined asking him: What are you trying to protect?

It's high time somebody asked the RIAA and MPAA the same question. The Rabbinical commentaries that are the bedrock of Judaism weren't canonized to deify the rabbinate, any more than the catechisms of the Catholic Church were originally propagated to confine Biblical access to priests and bishops. They were necessary constructs of pre-literate societies. Similarly, the RIAA and MPAA have served a valid and important role in bringing order to the music and film industries that produced a significant portion of the popular art of the 20th Century. Both were designed to suit publishing models prevalent at the time of their creation.

But the methods and materials of making and distributing music and movies are fundamentally different now. The recent spate of lawsuits and arrests surrounding perceived affronts like MP3.com and DeCSS are hardly the first time these institutions' sovereignty has been tested. The best-known example, of course, was the Betamax case of 1984. Film-industry fixture Universal City fought vehemently to keep recordability out of the home. They lost the battle, but they won the war: when the play-and-record VCR became standard household equipment, a secondary-market movie sales and rental bonanza exploded virtually from whole cloth and bestowed monstrous riches on everyone involved, Universal City included.

There's no reason the same thing shouldn't start happening now. This is what makes the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which restricts fair use more stringently than the ruling in the Betamax case, not only culturally reactionary but fiscally shortsighted. As the MPAA and DVD Copy Control Association (DVD CCA) flaunt DMCA in defending their copyright dominions against any attempt to broaden the playback base for DVD (which is all DeCSS and any Linux DVD player development ultimately amounts to), they're doing a disservice to the copyright holders they claim they're protecting. DVD-Video and CD-Audio are mass consumer markets, and the niche noodlings of Linux-heads and music enthusiasts who want to watch movies or hear music via PC or Web, are not going to diminish anyone's market share. If industry institutions modify their practices to exploit these potential markets, they may actually benefit from them.

Hackers by nature are anti-authoritarian in spirit, and they'll relish any blows they can strike against the empire, however small. When MP3.com launches fringe oddities like its My MP3 service, which (in part) pumps users' own CDs through tiny Internet pipes into computers--that could just as easily play them back on trusty CDs--it certainly calls attention to that seditious hacker spirit that has little to do with what MP3.com and similar sites are all about. The sites point to a new direction in Web-based music publishing that can bring new artists into the mix and new listeners into the marketplace, users who relish the idea of buying music without pre-set dimensions ("buying and selling round things," as one music exec has described it). And if the RIAA could wake up and see that this is not about stealing--it's about selling--it would see there's a whole new world of artists out there who need their copyrights protected, and whose market appeal will be demonstrably enhanced by the funky new way they sell their songs.

I think there's a place for these institutions in the new publishing order, just as there's a place for old-school long-forms like novels in our hypertexted world. Once they cease their search for threats implied, they'll discover that the opportunities inherent have already found them.

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